What does UCLA need to do to reach the NCAA tournament? The Bruins have three paths

UCLA coach Mick Cronin and players on the bench behind him react to call during the Bruins' win at Cal

Joe Lunardi, who gets paid to monitor teams that might make the NCAA tournament, hasn’t been watching much UCLA basketball lately.

The only thing the ESPN analyst has seen was a few fans on social media telling him to keep an eye on the Bruins.

They’re finally within space telescope range of college basketball’s biggest stage.

“Light months, not light years away, I would say,” Lunardi, who predicts NCAA tournament brackets, told The Times on Wednesday.

Even with five consecutive wins, UCLA (13-11 overall, 8-5 Pac-12) isn’t on the fringes of qualifying for the tournament. The biggest culprits are an 0-6 record in “Quad 1” games that are considered a top measure of tournament worthiness and a dreadful showing in the nonconference portion of the schedule. The Bruins not only failed to log any meaningful wins in November and December, but also lost at home to Cal State Northridge as part of a 6-10 start.

Salvation could come with a strong finish.

Read more: Mick Cronin has plenty to say after UCLA outlasts Cal to extend winning streak

UCLA has already risen nearly 100 spots to No. 111 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, that is one metric the tournament selection committee uses to pick and seed teams. That’s up from a season-worst No. 209 following the Bruins’ 46-point loss to Utah on Jan. 11.

Pegging UCLA as roughly 20 to 25 spots away from being among his “Last Four In,” Lunardi said he envisioned two scenarios in which Bruins could make the NCAA tournament without securing the automatic bid that comes with winning the Pac-12 tournament.

Scenario 1: Win their final seven regular-season games, starting Thursday evening against Colorado (16-8, 7-6) at Pauley Pavilion. That would give the Bruins a 20-11 record — 19-11 for purposes of the tournament selection committee that would disregard a victory over Chaminade because it’s in Division II — and more important a semi-respectable 3-6 record in Quad 1 games against top teams.

“They would be right there with that,” Lunardi said of the Bruins’ prospects of making the tournament given that resume with the added assumption that they didn’t stumble against a bad team in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament.

UCLA forward Adem Bona shouts and shoots over Oregon forward Tyler Bilodeau on Feb. 1 at Pauley Pavilion

Scenario 2: Win six of their final seven games, with at least two of the victories coming in Quad 1 games defined as those against teams with a NET ranking of 1 to 15 at home, 1 to 50 at a neutral site or 1 to 75 on the road.

As of now, UCLA has three Quad 1 games — on the road at Washington and Washington State plus a home game against Arizona — left on its schedule. Where would the Bruins be for tournament consideration with a 19-13 record that included going 2-7 in Quad 1 games?

“They would be right on the edge,” Lunardi said.

UCLA hasn’t missed the tournament since 2019, the season before coach Mick Cronin’s arrival. It looked like the Bruins were bound to miss out again in Cronin’s first season, compiling an 8-9 record through mid-January, before they won 11 of their last 14 games — including five Quad 1 victories — to get firmly on the bubble. Lunardi listed UCLA among his last four teams to make the tournament before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the rest of the season.

Going back to his last nine seasons at Cincinnati, Cronin has taken his teams to 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments, a record matched only by Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Kansas’ Bill Self. Cronin said he’s not thinking about getting to No. 13.

Read more: 'I want it to be my last job.' Mick Cronin says he's committed to UCLA despite adversity

“You know, it’s the last thing on my mind,” Cronin said. “It just doesn’t matter. I’ll be proud of our guys if we get to the point where that’s a real conversation; it’s not a real conversation right now. Right now, we need to get better. I just keep trying to tell these guys every day that the magic potion in life — not just for their career, for everybody — is that a lot of people get up and go through the motions; few people get up and try to get stuff done and be productive every day, and that’s the key to success.”

UCLA’s turnaround has been rooted in finally finding an offense to go with its strong defense, the Bruins averaging 70.3 points in winning seven of their last eight games as opposed to 64.2 points previously. The Bruins have also gotten better at rebounding and taking care of the ball, factors that helped them beat California last weekend on a day they shot just 36.2%.

But did UCLA shoot itself in the foot too many times before going on this roll?

For those wondering, the selection committee no longer values late-season success over piling up wins early in the season. Winning a conference regular-season title also guarantees nothing — Washington won the Pac-12 in 2012 and was rewarded with a trip to the National Invitation Tournament after losing to Oregon State in the first round of the conference tournament.

Fans reach out as UCLA guard Brandon Williams and forward Devin Williams enter the court before playing Oregon State

It does help UCLA in its bid to sustain its surge that it has five of its final seven games at home. Freshman forward Brandon Williams acknowledged thinking about the tournament amid his team’s recent push to secure one of 36 at-large bids.

“We’ve been on our winning streak, so we have a real good opportunity,” Williams said of making the tournament. “ … That would be like a dream come true.”

It would also complete the sort of revival that has become standard under Cronin.

“Can they be one of those teams in the relay race that sprints to the tape in the fourth leg, somebody handed them the baton five or six games ago and now they’re running?” Lunardi said. “Sure, because they could still finish in the top of the league and get a bye [in the conference tournament] and win a couple of games, right?”

Either way, given how far the Bruins have already come, it will be worth watching.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.